MADRID — As daylight faded, a cluster of young protesters sat in a circle discussing whether to support a new tax on financial transactions.
They had gathered most evenings this week, hoping to turn two weeks of demonstrations that have filled city squares across this country and taken the political establishment by surprise, into something more lasting — a set of demands.
“We need change in this country,” said Ruth Martínez, a member of the group who has been unemployed for nearly three years.
Until recently, young people inwere dismissed as an apathetic generation, uninterested in party politics. But the outpouring of young people who have taken to the streets since May 15 — at one point about 28,000 protesters spent the night in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square — has changed all that, forcing the country to take heed and reconsider.
The recession that has ravaged Spain, along with much of southern Europe, has had an especially hard impact on the young, with unemployment rates soaring to more than 40 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds, about twice the national average and the highest in the European Union. Many of them see limited hope of improvement unless they reshuffle the political deck and demand a new approach to creating jobs.
“Suddenly people are talking about politics everywhere,” said María Luz Morán, a sociologist at the Complutense University of Madrid. “You go to have coffee or you are standing in the subway and you hear conversations about politics. It’s been years since I heard anyone talking about politics.”
Even young people who have jobs here are often caught in a system of poorly paid, temporary contracts. The contracts were once designed to help them break into the labor force, but they have served instead to put adulthood out of reach for many. Ms. Moran said that one survey showed that about 50 percent of 30-year-olds in Spain were still living with their parents.
“We call 32- and 35-year-olds young people in Spain, because they are forced to live like children,” she said. “Thirty-year-olds should have their own homes.”
Few experts are willing to say what the protesters might achieve. But already issues that were discussed only at the margins are being taken more seriously. One major conservative daily newspaper, ABC, polled constitutional experts this week about what it would take to change the election laws, one of the principal demands of the demonstrators, who say the current system heavily favors the country’s two leading political parties.
“They have already had an impact,” said Rafael Díaz-Salazar, another sociologist at Complutense, who believes that the protesters may represent about two million voters. “They are forcing people to take a look at this impoverished generation. There will have to talk about precarious work contracts and housing in the next election. They cannot avoid it anymore.”
Experts say that there are two broad categories of unemployed and underemployed young people in Spain. At one end of the spectrum are relatively uneducated young people who left school in the past decade when the country’s economy was booming and they could easily find work in the construction industry. Now those jobs have disappeared and are unlikely to come back.
At the other end are workers who have one or more university degrees, who cannot find work either, or who get hired on six-month contracts at low wages, often in menial jobs that have nothing to do with what they were trained for.
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Lidia Posada García, 26, is one of them. She is active in ¡Democracia REAL Ya!, a group that helped rally protestors through the Internet. A lawyer, she is one of the few in her circle of friends who has a job. But she says she is paid as if she is doing administrative work.
“We all live at home,” she said. “We are the most prepared, qualified generation. But there is not much for us.”
One of the catchiest slogans to emerge from the protests is “no jobs, no houses, no pension, no fear.”
Many of the protesters were so excited by the turnout on May 15 that they decided to pitch their tents and stay on. By May 21, the day before regional and local elections, there were thousands more protesters in squares across the country, ignoring official decrees that they should leave.
Since then, the numbers who camp out every night have dwindled, though nightly “general assemblies” in Madrid still draw thousands, including gawking tourists. The Puerta del Sol has taken on a circus feel. Some of the protesters sport dreadlocks, look ragged and lounge around on mattresses.
Still, between the tents and handmade plastic lean-tos there is all manner of activity, from massages to hardheaded efforts to organize, communicate and zero in on a list of demands. This week protesters have been trying to reach an agreement at the assemblies as to how and when to dismantle the tents and leave all but an information point in the square.
Historically, Spaniards have taken to the streets with some regularity, like most Europeans. But the events are usually organized by political parties and unions, organizations that the young have largely ignored. Many of the new protesters say they are disgusted with the unions that do little to represent their interests and with both of Spain’s main parties, which they view as corrupt and unresponsive.
Early participants say the protests bloomed over Twitter and Facebook, triggered by several events that gnawed at the younger generation, including revelations from WikiLeaks documents that showed government officials to be less than forthright, and opposition to a recent antipiracy Internet law, which aims to shut down previously legal Web sites enabling the free downloading of music and films.
“WikiLeaks and the antipiracy law were not the reasons for the outpouring,” said Enrique Dans, an economist and blogger at the IE Business School in Madrid, who became involved in protesting the antipiracy law and then helped to mobilize his followers. “But they were the spark. Just like the man who set himself on fire in Tunisia was not the reason, but the spark for what happened afterwards.”
Mr. Dans arrived at the initial demonstration late and was stunned at the turnout. “I came around the corner and I thought, ‘My God, there are people here,’ ” he said. “There has never really been a grass-roots movement in Spain.”